Narendra Modi’s message about the pivotal need to improve governance and reduce government had real resonance for me last week. On the day that he made his speeches in Delhi, I happened to be crossing from the Mandwa jetty, in Maharashtra’s Raigad district, by ferry to Mumbai along with hundreds of other commuters whose main means of transport to the city had been blocked all weekend. This happens often because every time the Navy Chief wants to organise some event at the Gateway of India, all ferries are banned and every time there is a VIP staying in the Taj Hotel, all boat traffic is stopped.
For those of us who need to use the ferry services, this is a matter of huge inconvenience because driving to Mumbai takes many hours and train services to the villages in which we live are virtually non-existent. This is an excellent example of typically Indian bad governance. It would never happen in another democratic country because the whole point about democracy is that citizens are more important than officials of any kind. But, because the transition from colonial to democratic governance took a ‘socialistic’ route in India, the rights of citizens continue to be subordinate to the privileges of officials.
At this point, though, I should explain how I came to be so familiar with the district of Raigad and the Mandwa jetty. Some years ago I started to live part-time in a small village by the sea and it is here that I escape when I want the solitude essential for writing books. So I make regular use of the Mandwa jetty where the ferries from Mumbai land. When I first started coming here 10 years ago, all ferries and private boats docked at an old fishing boat that acted as a buffer between the boats and the worn stone steps that led to a jetty so ancient that rusting iron rods hang from its underside making you wonder how it sustains the weight of the daily commuter traffic.
This is why I was delighted when the Government of Maharashtra decided about five years ago to build a new jetty in Mandwa but my joy was short-lived. No sooner did construction begin than it became clear that what the Government was first building was a rest house for officials and a watchtower for the police. And so it came to pass that an ugly little building came up long before the jetty was complete and although it calls itself a ‘tourist terminal’ only officials are allowed to enter it. After this, a watchtower was built in which a couple of surly policemen now lounge, harassing commuters with random checks that appear to have no clear purpose. Once, when they asked me to open my bag, I asked them what they were looking for and they had no answer.
In any case, finally, when the jetty was built, it was found that the contractor had built it so badly that ferries could not dock at it, so till some months ago landing in Mandwa continued to mean that you had to jump off the ferry onto the old fishing boat and jump from there onto the worn, slippery steps of the old jetty. The new jetty had to be rebuilt so more taxpayers’ money went waste because of bad governance. Some months ago the new jetty became fully operational but already it is beginning to show signs of crumbling. Tiles have started to fall off the steps and there is a general air of disrepair about it that is sure to get worse after the rains.
To put it more bluntly, taxpayers money has been wasted on a piece of infrastructure that is unlikely to last very long and instead of building a breakwater to protect the jetty and make it easier for boats to dock, money has been wasted on a jetty that is almost a carbon copy of the old one.
Often on my journeys to and from Mandwa and Mumbai I have found myself wondering why ordinary citizens do not make a huge racket about what has happened and then I stop wondering because I remember that bad governance in Maharashtra is the norm, not the exception. Two examples from last week alone came from the tragic collapse of that building in Thane and the garbage scandal. When the building was going up in Thane where were the officials who were supposed to make sure that the builders met safety standards? When the Municipal Corporation gave a contracts of Rs 5100 crores to a shady contractor who has so far not made the smallest effort to clear a vast, disease-breeding garbage dump on the edge of Mumbai, where were those whose job it is to ensure that taxpayers money is not wrongly spent? On account of Anna Hazare’s agitation having made ‘corruption’ its war cry, too few people have noticed that the real problem is governance.
Wherever there is good governance, or even relatively good governance, there are rarely instances of corruption. Wherever there is good governance there is usually a better watch kept on the manner in which public money is spent. So it is not a super policeman in the form of a powerful Lokpal who will make the difference it is a serious attempt to improve standards of governance that will make the difference. When Narendra Modi comes to Delhi and tells people this he always illustrates what he is saying with examples of what he has already done in Gujarat to improve governance.
It is Modi’s bad luck that the national media hates him so much that it spends more time demonising him than listening to him. He is autocratic, arrogant and greedy for power, they say, without seeming to notice that he has put ‘su-shasan’ (good governance) at the top of his agenda. Luckily for us there are plenty of people in the Congress who have been paying careful attention and this is why Modi has succeeded in changing the conversation so much that even Rahul Gandhi had to talk about the need for better governance when he made his first major address to the nation in Delhi the week before last. This must mean that the main issue in the coming general election is going to be governance rather than ‘secularism’ and that will make a happy change from elections past. May he who can convince voters that he is serious about improving governance win!